The SFF Librarian Reviews, Dec. 2020
As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction and fantasy librarian for one of the world’s largest SFF collection, I come across a lot of wonderful work in these genres. I love bringing to the attention of interested readers books and authors that bring me joy, some of which may have slipped below people’s radar, and I do so every month in The SFF Librarian Reviews series for ARB.
Let’s find strange new worlds together!
The queering of literary vampirism, and more specifically, Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula isn’t exactly a new literary endeavor (I mean, the subtext is right there). But there is something particularly unique to this in Jose Luis Zarate’s novella The Route of Ice & Salt (Innsmouth Free Press, 2020, $13.00). Originally published in Mexico in 1998, Ice & Salt has just been reissued by Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Innsmouth Free Press in a powerful, visceral translation by David Bowles. It takes as its subject a brief interlude in Dracula: the voyage of the doomed Russian cargo ship Demeter from the Black Sea to England, its hold containing mysterious boxes of soil and, as we come to learn, Count Dracula himself, making his fateful and deadly trip to a new land of new victims to subjugate. In Stoker’s original narrative, the Demeter is found grounded on the English coast near Whitby, the crew gone, the captain dead and lashed to the wheel with a crucifix in his hands. His story is told through the log he leaves behind, a tale of growing mystery and fear as nervous crew members suddenly go missing, a deep fog rises to cover the ship, and the last remaining mate goes insane and leaps into the sea after screaming “He is there. I know the secret now.”
Secret is, in fact, key to Zarate’s work, in which he takes this small (yet ultimately pivotal) moment in Dracula and expands it into a chronicle of the emotional multifacetedness of male desire. The nameless captain is himself a man of secrets. He desperately conceals his homosexual nature beneath overlapping layers of guilt, of anguish over the horrific death of a lover at the hands of a mob (that treated the body of their victim as one treats a vampire—beheading it, driving a stake through it, and burying it at a crossroads), of the fear of discovery, and of social isolation brought on by his role as captain. He commands a vessel of secrets, knowing little about the men he hires as crew (but desiring many of them), knowing even less about the cargo he is transporting, still less about the origin of his increasingly strange and erotic dreams, and knowing nothing until the novella’s conclusion about the dark secret stalking Demeter. He keeps a secret log, the hidden record of his desires and fears. The true route of ice and salt (the latter an element of both blood and semen) is not the literal journey of the ship, but the lonely and guilt-ridden journey through life of the captain as a queer man.
By the novella’s end, the captain knows the secret, too. In confronting the monster that haunts his ship and makes it his own realm of blood and forced intimacy, Demeter’s captain uncovers a deep truth. In realizing Dracula as the embodiment of selfish thirst that is Pure Need and that cares nothing for the lives it destroys, he finally knows himself to be no unnatural creature devoid of love or human grace.
Dracula calls the captain a small man, enslaved “to the sin you committed against that man [the captain’s dead lover]. To the fact that you seduced when he could not rightly choose…You forced him to eat a forbidden fruit and the reward was a stake that forever violates a dead body with no ceasing, no peace…How do I know it all? You told me yourself, in your dreams. You gave me the secrets of your reckoning, of this ship’s course, in exchange for a little pleasure. a pact with me…Don’t look at me with disgust, little man. You are like me” (171). No, says the captain. Dracula’s weaponization of desire runs aground on the captain’s realization that it is the forbidding, the hiding of desire, that is the true crime. That it is remorseless need without love or concern, that is the true sin. The end of the captain’s solitary route of ice and salt comes with a new wisdom:
I know that Thirst is not evil in and of itself, nor Hunger a stigma that must be erased by fire and blood.
Not even Sin.
It is what we are willing to do to feed an impulse that makes it dangerous…
But I must see that man for the last time, tell him that Hunger is not a sin, nor is Necessity or Appetite.
What matters, I repeat, is what we are willing to do to satisfy them.177, 184
* * *
S.L. Huang gives us a beautiful melding of disparate legends, drenched in sorrow and loss and wrapped in trauma, in her new novella Burning Roses (Tor.com, 2020, $21.99). Huang has taken classic stories from two very different cultures and applied to them not only honest emotion, but commonalities universally shared across human societies. From China, Huang presents a female version of Hou Yi (the “Lord Archer,” a warrior and slayer of monsters, who sought immortality and was the husband of the moon goddess Chang’e). An older Hou Yi still hunts monsters as the novella opens, joined in her work by a sharpshooting figure from Western storybooks, Rosa (aka Little Red Riding Hood). Both women are slower in their movements, less sure in their aim. Age, the experience of emotional upheaval, and years of heartache over hauntingly poor choices unite the two in sadness. Though separated by birthplace, history, and cultural differences, Hou Yi and Rosa share (like all of humanity) a capacity for regret and an unwillingness to confront past mistakes. Not every author could bring true human dimension to flat figures of legend and story, but Huang expertly manages it. That is no small talent.
It has been a good long while since I read a work of fantasy that has so much sorrow at its heart. (That is not, by the way, a criticism at all.) Even the excitement of killing monsters is tinged with it – Rosa’s confrontation with what we quickly see to be versions of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is one particular instance. Both women make choices in their younger days that have drastic, lasting effects on their loved ones. Both run from the consequences of their decisions. Both labor under the crippling weight of those decisions, yet cannot escape them. That’s the living everyday truth of humanity that doesn’t always get shared in fairy tales or legends, but which Huang brings out so well in her book.
At one point in the story, Rosa emerges from a temporary transformation into a fish; Huang notes that “[t]he return of her humanity was surprisingly discomfiting” (124). And so it is. Even being a legendary figure does not ensure an escape from the implications of being human, or the worry and discontent that comes with having to live with the choices one makes.
* * *
Racism is the twisted abomination that haunts the corridors of American history, shrieking and gibbering, leaving behind the traumatized and the dead as it passes by. P. Djeli Clark adopts the ingenious conceit of transforming that figurative monster into a literal one (or rather, a horde of them) in his powerful novella Ring Shout (Tor.com, 2020, $19.99). [Clark is no stranger to searing stories about racism and its effects on the innocent and the guilty alike- anyone who has read his 2018 Nebula-winning story “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” knows this already.] The work is set in a murderous era – the early 1920s, when Jim Crow reigned supreme in the South, and the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan arose to assume nationwide popularity and alarming political influence. It was an age when hundreds of innocent African Americans were lynched (51 in 1922 alone, the year in which Ring Shout takes place). In the too-familiar America Clark presents, the Second Klan is terrorizing Black people as in our history, but here regular Klansmen are joined with “Ku Kluxes,” entities that possess humans and can transform them into huge, twisted monsters. Of course, the point here is that both Klansmen and Ku Kluxers are monsters, separated only by origin, appearance, and brute strength. But both are fueled by race hatred. Protagonist and fierce resistance fighter Maryse Boudreaux notes at one point “how Klan folk turn Ku Klux. Molly says it’s like an infection, or a parasite. And it feed on hate. She says chemicals in the body change up when you hate strong. When the infection meets that hate, it starts growing until it’s powerful enough to turn the person Ku Klux.” (49) Hate is a virus, and it spreads like one.
Clark sets in a fictional frame the all-too-real sorrowful truth that racists are so steeped in hateful beliefs and a false sense of superiority, that they are capable of the unthinkable in trying to preserve a noxious system of white supremacy. In the case of Ring Shout, these white supremacists are desperate and angry enough to call upon dark supernatural powers as allies in their efforts. Their chief instrument? The 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, that disgusting piece of pro-Klan propaganda, which here is a vehicle for delivering up enough hate from the souls of its viewers to open the doorway to another dimension and usher in evil forces. It’s an inspired idea, given the hateful heritage of the real-life film and its role in inspiring the creation of the Second Klan.
But Clark is quick to point out that evil can and must be fought. Monsters can be slain. His heroes are a motley collection of women, each marked and shaped by different historical experiences that brought them to the fight. Maryse is out to avenge the lynching deaths of her family. Cordelia is an ex-soldier whose skills were honed with the Harlem Hellfighters in the carnage of the First World War. Sadie is a crack sharpshooter from the rural Deep South. And history is *their* weapon as well, literally so. Maryse wields a mystical sword powered by the anger and rage of slaves that binds it to the souls of those that bought and sold them. Clark’s novella reveals truths that apply equally to these days of rising white supremacy as they did a century ago: the real monsters are the ones inside us. Hate must be fought, and the struggle never really ends. And lastly, those who fight evil and hatred are always stronger together.
* * *
Persephone Station (Saga Press, 2021, $27.00) is a departure for Stina Leicht. Leicht is best known for works of fantasy such as her Fey and The Fallen series, which combines Irish legend with the bloody ‘Troubles’ of the 1970s, as well as her epic The Malorum Gates duology. However, her literary risk-taking pays off in wonderfully exciting spades with her entry into the genre of outer space adventure. [Full disclosure: I am Leicht’s archivist.]
Persephone Station is a fast-paced feminist riff on The Magnificent Seven and that film’s predecessor Seven Samurai. (Leicht slyly winks at this heritage by setting much of the novel in the dusty settlement of ‘West Brynner’, and by naming the heroines’ dropship Kurosawa.) As with those films, Persephone gives us a ragtag group of damaged warriors and mercenaries come together on the eponymous planet to defend a native settlement from merciless outside forces looking to prey on the weak and powerless. (In this case, in an sadly-all-too-timely detail the enemy is a ruthless corporation pursuing advantage at the expense of innocent lives. The ethical line delineating a massive corporation from the bandit gangs of the original sources is pretty thin, when one gets down to it.) The basic story is always a stirring one, hence the reason it keeps getting retold. What Leicht has done in her version is to set it among a multicultural cast of characters that are almost entirely women – and not only that, but women connected by years of common experience as well as the compulsion to ultimately do good. The crew is led by Sabrina “Angel” de la Reza, a former space Marine sergeant. Angel is bitter, world-weary, and damaged physically and psychologically, with a strong code of honor that surfaces at the most crucial moment. Her mercenary companions include terminally ill smuggler Sukyi Edozie, irreverent pilot “LoopdiLou” Bagley, queer assassin Enid Crowe, and mysterious computer expert Kennedy Liu. A simple description of these characters, however, doesn’t do true justice to the strong and realistic emotional connections that Leicht draws between them. Persephone Station’s power lies less in its plethora of action scenes (thrilling as they are) and more in its character development. These women are not simply a randomized assemblage of archetypes: they are a group of women bound by ties of honor, mutual respect, and love. They are, in the end, a family group with whom the reader feels joy in spending time.
Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020. The author and editor have worked together in the past on another publication. No review copies were arranged by ARB.
The cover image is by Tomáš Matouš.